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The challenge of Church leadership



Among Australian Catholics the Plenary Council and the preparations for the Synod in Rome on Synodality have aroused hope and stirred scepticism. It is clear that a Church diminishing in numbers of participants in its public life and in its financial resources, and discouraged by the extent of child abuse by its officers, must find new ways. But that the processes of the Council and the Synod will spark fresh energy for change is not a given.

Two recent books set out the size of the challenge and the kind of leadership for meeting it envisaged by Pope Francis in his Synodal process. As its title suggests, Wrestling with the Church Hierarchy takes a critical view of the leadership of the Catholic Church. It comprises annotated articles and talks of John Warhurst, a political scientist and long-standing columnist in Eureka Street. The collection gathers together descriptions of the Australian Catholic Church and its relationship to the State, correspondence, advocacy and personal views.

It begins with the findings of the Royal Commission on Sexual Abuse, which offered a study of an organisation whose operative values differed sharply from its professed mission both in the action of some of its officers and the cover up of their crimes. It led a group of Canberra Catholics to which Warhurst belonged to advocate for church reform in response to this event, and later to the announcement of the Plenary Council. 

Warhurst brings to this work his extensive participation and experience in Catholic agencies concerned with social justice. In his engagement with Catholic leaders about the Plenary Council and its processes he found them generally intent on avoiding engagement. The overall tone of his writing is not polemical but explanatory and persuasive, respectful of persons and positive in proposing necessary reform. He was clearly frustrated by the difficulty of persuading Church leaders to engage in ways that are recognised commonly as good governance. He sees the defects of Catholic hierarchical leadership as structural, leading to a lack of transparency, accountability, consultation, inclusivity and humility, and a surfeit of clericalism. In that sense the tone of the book is elegiac.

Warhurst’s work is helpful in illustrating in great detail the difficulties of promoting needed change in the face of structural paralysis. The short book of Anne Benjamin and Charles Burford complements it by presenting an attractive and detailed understanding of leadership in the Church which might free the energy needed for reform. Leadership in a Synodal Church is informed with familiarity with contemporary theories of leadership. It provides the background for understanding Pope Francis’ concept of a synodal Church.


'Conversation of the kind envisaged by Pope Francis requires from all its participants great energy, readiness to change their opinion, and willingness to have their own passionate convictions sidelined in broader conversations.' 


The great virtue of this book is its comprehensive and systematic account of the elements and contexts that characterise good organisations and their leadership. It emphasises the importance of the mission of the Church and the values it embodies, and of its embodiment in the culture of the church – the ‘this is the way we do things here’ – and in its governance and its decision making.  Good leadership ensures the coherence between these facets of the church. It is grounded in faith.

Benjamin and Burford build the discussion of leadership around Pope Francis’ emphasis on Synodality, itself based on a clear and challenging on an understanding of mission as spreading the Kingdom of God in following Jesus’ way. Leadership will embody this mission by encouraging relationships that embody its values at all levels of policy and administration. It will be characterised by transparency, responsibility, shared decision making, consistent respect in all internal and external relationships and processes, and energy released for mission. As in Warhurst’s writing, the polar opposite of this model is illustrated by the sexual abuse crisis and the way in which church leaders first responded to it.           

The writers illustrate what leadership involves by referring Pope Francis’ image of Synodality. He sees in it a way to break down the paralysis inherent in hierarchical management structures, a self-referential leadership caste, and decision making that is arbitrary and non-consultative. In Synodality leadership is exercised at all levels of the Church as the insights gained in local congregations in their engagement with those at the margins of the Church are sought out by bishops, are in turn reflected on, are brought into conversation at national and international level, and then expressed in the life of the church. Relationships at all levels are characterised by listening and by embodying the values inherent in the Mission of the Church. Synodality presupposes in the participants self-knowledge and commitment to the following of Jesus.

The attractive picture of Christian leadership in this book, and the bracing picture of intractability and inertia in Warhurst’s account, will naturally prompt readers to ask whether Pope Francis’ Synodal project is in with a chance. Many Catholics have their doubts. These doubts are reasonable. They are based in judgments about the predicament of the Catholic Church and of contemporary Western societies.

A major difficulty, recognised by Warhurst, is that Bishops, who will need to encourage and lead Australian buy-in to the Synodal process, are poorly resourced in terms of people, money and time. They have few and ageing clergy, diminishing congregations, little money, and increasing responsibilities and limitations under Government legislation. They also bear the weight of history. Once able to act as feudal lords of their own demesne under a distant king, they were then treated as agents of a Papal Monarch who enjoyed the divine right of kings and are now part of a large and loose bureaucracy without power but with great responsibility. They are reluctant to act without Roman authorisation, have no effective structures to act as a national group, bear the taint of the child sexual abuse scandal, and have few local resources.  

In addition, they have limited capacity to implement change in their own dioceses. They need to work through their parish clergy. This is not always easy. Challenged by a parishioner for disagreeing with the infallible Pope, one Parish Priest replied humorously but with some plausibility, ‘Every parish priest is infallible in his own parish’.

These are some of the factors that make people doubt whether Synodal conversation will generate energy for mission. Trends in public life may also intensify doubt. Lack of trust in governance that is seen as ineffectual, deliberately opaque, self-interested and distant from the lives of people, flows over into other institutions, including churches, and expresses itself in apathy and resentment.

Conversation of the kind envisaged by Pope Francis requires from all its participants great energy, readiness to change their opinion, and willingness to have their own passionate convictions sidelined in broader conversations. Those who enter it must be open to be persuaded by people with whom they disagree, and to require more than majority opinion to validate decisions.

The challenge facing leaders who commend such a strategy is to make people believe in it, whether they be Presidents, Prime Ministers, Bishops, central administrators, priests, or people in congregations. Leaders need to be able to touch beliefs or commitments that lie deeper than individual interests and command engagement rather than detachment. Only an operative faith in community, democracy, or solidarity can overcome disengagement.

In the Catholic Church such trust depends on the operative belief that the Holy Spirit is active in the life of the Church to make the Gospel come alive, and can make a bonfire out of sodden wood. Pope Francis clearly has this trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to break through all obstacles, and to make barren soil fertile. Others may be sceptical. But what other than such trust could enable reform in public life or in church? 




Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: The stained glass window depicting St Patrick in St Patrick's Basilica, Montreal (Aleroy4/Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Catholic Church, leadership, Plenary Council, Synodality



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Existing comments

If we believe that God's resurrecting power is not confined to the distant future but is experienced here and now in the work of the Holy Spirit then we can put up with a lot. We can recognise the brokenness, the difficulties and the alienation as a part of unfinished work. Our leadership particularly must recognise their privilege in working with a church in crisis. The church works within the world while standing apart from the world. This stance requires humility and weakness.

Pam | 12 August 2021  

Thank you for your excellent reviews of these books. Could you kindly tell me the publishing details so that I can track them down?

Helen Praetz | 12 August 2021  
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Hi Helen,
both of these are published by a local Catholic Publisher, Garratt Publishing and you can purchase directly through their website garrattpublishing.com.au

Rachel | 13 August 2021  

La belle Helene, nice to see you on this site! You'll find details of John's book on the following, as per one of your requests:


Michael Furtado | 16 August 2021  

I'm not one - as I'd hope my regular responses to the way John Warhurst and his reformist supporters have been pointing us in their writings and "Eureka Street" postings - who regards the challenges of Catholic Church reform as primarily "structural". Rather, the underlying issue as I see it is one of faith itself and its sharing in an increasingly secularised society; a task for which I view conformity to society's legal and bureaucratic procedures and structures as, of themselves, inadequate. Faith is as faith does: in its Catholic expression, it is sustained by the constants of prayer, sacramental participation, commonly held teaching and discernment based on scripture and tradition, and outreach to the needy - all in a spirit of hope and the love of Christ. I remain sceptical as to how emphasis on "structures" can inspire and engage people, (especially ones busy with family and work commitments), and deliver the renewal of spirit and will required for necessary refreshment and reform of minds and hearts. This will take, as Pope Francis proclaims and Andrew concludes, the influence of the Holy Spirit.

John RD | 13 August 2021  
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I agree with you about the almost futility of focusing on "structures". It's the structure of the individual heart that matters. Just one person inspired by the Holy Spirit can bring about big change.

marita | 17 August 2021  

The Plenary Council is irrelevant right now when many churches are closed for even private prayer. One symptom of THE major problem in the Australian Catholic Church is that many bishops were too willing to close churches completely when other 'less essential' establishments could remain open.

marita | 17 August 2021  

But surely 'structure' is important John, else why have the present hierarchical structure, or any structure at all? And structure, by its nature and purpose, influences behaviour but that influence can be for both good and bad behaviour. For example, the way that bishops are appointed and removed at present is highly likely to encourage obedience and compliance with 'head office' directions but it is also highly unlikely to encourage any bishop to put his head above the parapet and query the wisdom or relevance of those directions. Nor is a single bishop, or even an informal national conference of bishops in a place like Australia, acting within the system likely to be able to effect change in the face of the Vatican bureaucracy.

Ginger Meggs | 20 August 2021  

I don't regard "structures" as unimportant, Ginger - rather, I think they proceed from the human heart and spirit, and the influences upon these. Accordingly, one's inner desires, motives and intentions are the first place that whatever is conceived for action should be addressed; and where, at least according to Ignatian spirituality, forces of good and evil vie for ascendancy and expression - an interplay that requires, as the Jesuit Pope Francis insists, "discernment".

John RD | 24 August 2021  

This is the first time I've encountered an interpretation of discernment, especially in the context of Ignatian spirituality, as a contest between good and evil. That has to be the most reductionistic slant on discernment that I've encountered in aeons and one that's calculated to regard change as a threat, thereby to put a firm stop to it, instead of encouraging it, as +Francis recommends, which advises contemplation, prayer, consultation and opening one's 'inner eye' before acting.

Michael Furtado | 04 September 2021  

Nice that Roy has come to your assistance with his post of September 3, John. However it will not offer much solace. Brazil may well appear to the uninformed outsider to be an egalitarian multicultural and interracial society. Tragically it is not, but instead one in which Blacks, who are of slave descent, and Whites, exercise vast power differentials. When Dom Helder Camara offered this explanation as Archbishop of Recife in largely impoverished Northern Brazil he was called a Communist! Equally, to compare Liberians with other Black people in the Caribbean and the Americas, where they are all universally impoverished and of slave descent, is to grossly misread the statistics. All of them, including the Liberians, share a history of being forcibly uprooted, deculturated and enslaved and, worst of all, were never compensated for the wealth they were forced to produce for their White oppressors.

Michael Furtado | 04 September 2021  

While spiritual discernment can, of course, apply to choices between goods to determine which is is the better course for action, it's extraordinary, Michael, that one with such a long Jesuit association should find novel the idea of Ignatian discernment as involving "a contest between good and evil". A contemplation of Ignatius's "Meditation on the Two Standards" (of Christ and Satan), and a reading of his "Rules for the Discernment of Spirits" in the Spiritual Exercises are, to this day, staples of Jesuit spirituality.

John RD | 05 September 2021  

I thank John RD for his timely reminder (September 5, 2021) that there would be no such thing as Ignatian Spirituality, without the zeal of St Ignatius Loyola to commence and embed this rigorous contemplative religious practice. John would do well to also note that there is much more to the Spiritual Exercises in particular and Ignatian Spirituality in general, both of them implicit in Fr Sosa's recent comments, than a contest between God and the Devil.

Michael Furtado | 06 September 2021  

My God, this man can write! Entrusted at one time - and spectacularly! - to be the special and obedient emissaries of the Pope since the split of the Great Reform, one of their number in Australia now exercises his gift to filter across to us both a coherent appreciation of the Holy Father's urgent plea for a Synodal Church as well as the rich thoughts of three Australian lay leaders with high scores on the board for indicating a way forward. If this, as all who read will instantly surmise, is the voice of the Holy Spirit pointing to the way ahead, the most critical question at this juncture has to be: do the Bishops read and will they respond? I know of no other Australian journal that addresses these urgent questions so persistently as well as succinctly, but in the face of such dogged silence from our anointed leaders. Surely there are some amongst the bishops with the courage to respond or does some fond illusion mock me? 'Come Holy Spirit; Fill the Hearts of your Faithful and Enkindle in us the Fire of your Love! Enlighten us, Guide us and, above all at this stage, Encourage us!'

Michael Furtado | 13 August 2021  
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‘but in the face of such dogged silence from our anointed leaders….’ In this circumstance, to damn if they speak up and damn if they don’t is silly logic. Like judges, they remain silent until after the tribunal has ended. Then, after considering the various ‘evidences’ submitted, they will pronounce their judgement.

roy chen yee | 14 August 2021  

The world needs the second coming. When we see the apocalyptic pestilence, natural disasters and seduction of mankind by self-indulgence in all things (including even God's ordained ministry on Earth), perhaps it is not too far away.

john frawley | 15 August 2021  

Fr Andrew thank you. John Warhurst is a lamp in the darkness, exposing the wounded, bleeding Samaritan in the ditch, while the Bishops, (after crossing the road) revel in their self congratulatory hollow wisdom.
"Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.” John Stuart Mill.
Australian church leadership, under resourced or not, needs to embrace the commonsense of the laity and listen, as well as turning to the Holy Spirit for guidance for a new path to emerge. Otherwise the Catholic church in Australia is the privilege purely of the elite.

Francis Armstrong | 16 August 2021  

I should think a far greater hazard for Church reform than the privileged elitism envisioned by Francis Armstrong (16/8) would be the expansion of bureaucratic procedures that effectively exclude working parents of families from participation, leaving the way open for the predominance of a minority of not necessarily "commonsense" reforming specialists with a secularising agenda for the Catholic Church.

John RD | 18 August 2021  
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Do you really think that 'working parents of families' have any effective say in the way that the church is run now, John?

Ginger Meggs | 20 August 2021  

Indeed I recognise the importance of ecclesial structure, Ginger, but consider it contingent on the faith of individuals that gives rise to its formalised expression in community.

John RD | 23 August 2021  

Within the guidelines of Catholic teaching - for example, Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" - and in accord with their own inspiration and initiative, Ginger, yes, I do.

John RD | 23 August 2021  

John's attack on secularism is commonly accepted in theologically-literate Catholic circles as code for those who reject the modernising influences of Vatican II. One sees it regularly splattered all over these pages, baying for modernist blood and committed to taking the Church back to 'them good ole Dark Ages.' It should be remembered, when that kind of sickening nostalgia kicks in that, despite the excesses of secularism, if it weren't for the secular state, we Catholics would still be committed to the abuse of the auto-da-fe, the Syllabus of Errors and the murder of Protestants and Jews.

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2021  

One of the problems with reforming a large and amorphous structure, any structure, not just a religious one, is that there are many vested interests involved, which are keen to gain or hold onto power. Many of these interests are almost solely interested in the particular barrow they are pushing. They have no idea of where the Church is coming from or where it is going. The desacralisation of 'Theology' and religious thought in general is no help, because those who vent their opinions are often clueless. John RD sounds a sensible cautionary note here. It should be heeded.

Edward Fido | 25 August 2021  

Regrettably, Edward, what you say about those who vent their opinions in matters theological is true of a number I encountered in Plenary Council preliminary sessions who demonstrated adroitness in regurgitating headline cliches du jour of the secular media but remarkable ignorance of actual Catholic teaching - a phenomenon also observable in Religious Education seminars and workshops where ill-defined appeals to "relevance" and "empowerment" frequently emerge as the decisive criteria for change, and movements such as Black Lives Matter - a praxis expression of Critical Race Theory - receive unqualified support. There appears to be a notion that Marxist-style social justice satisfies or even replaces the demands of relationship with Christ and the ecclesial discipleship and witness it entails - e.g., participation in the sacraments - an idea nowhere supported in Catholic Social Teaching.

John RD | 27 August 2021  
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Sorry to interrupt this 'Love-Fest', John and Edward, but both of your hugely entertaining posts glaringly ignore the fact that the Church's teaching of the Gospels is encased in a praxis theology that privileges experience and reality over armchair criticism and resort, as in the case of many elderly men, including myself, to time-worn cliches that beg for interrogation and mitigation. One of these influences, dramatically missing from ES discussion of Critical Race Theory and the Black Lives Matter movement, is that the majority of those doing the 'discussing' in these columns are, to use a terminology not of my own invention, 'Dead White Males'. When both you, John, and Edward as well (though he is better informed in terms of his race-theory application) are prepared to admit that much of what we perceive in the world is looked at through a White Man's Eyes, you might find that your usually interesting and perennially arresting posts break through the ceiling of what is termed 'White Privilege' and manage to concede, though (be warned!) not without conscience-informing struggle leading to conversion of heart, a realisation of the central role played by the epistemic or authentic experiential voice in racial justice matters.

Michael Furtado | 28 August 2021  

How can totalising ascriptions of "privilege" to others on the basis of colour be conducive to the mutual respect and understanding between peoples that the Church proposes as necessary for the attainment of justice and peace?

John RD | 30 August 2021  

The answer, dear John, is simple. Black persons, in the US, as in Australia, generally exercise far less collective power, control and agency over the polity than White persons collectively do. The Gospels, which are the singular most important document that guides Christian behaviour and practice, significantly and critically addresses as the cornerstone of Christian living the necessity to relinquish power and treat others as we might treat ourselves. Thanks for asking.

Michael Furtado | 31 August 2021  

An interesting argument, John, though not one that withstands the test of public scrutiny. Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans and Jewish- Americans, for all the indignities visited upon them at various times at the hands of Americans in the form of anti-Asian sentiment and and anti-semitic discrimination, have never constituted the sole membership of a forcibly enslaved people. Indeed Jewish Americans exercise a power of veto over US decision-making in the Middle-East that far exceeds their proportion of the US population, constituting a bulkhead for US interference in the Middle-East that is in the opinion of many the root cause of much of the Middle-Eastern problem, based especially on the Palestinian experience of exile in their own land. Therefore your statistics, like your misreading of the work of the Frankfurt School, appear to offer yet another unfortunate example of the power of false correlation.

Michael Furtado | 02 September 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘have never constituted the sole membership of a forcibly enslaved people.’ Non sequitur, unless this implies what? That historical slavery necessarily disempowers blacks in futuro but historical ‘holocaust’ necessarily lights a rocket engine under Jews in futuro? I’m not sure the four hundred thousand black slaves who bred into four million (unlike the blacks in the Caribbean and Brazil who constantly died and had to be replenished, which explains why nine and a half of the ten million Africans who survived transportation to the Americas did not disembark in North America) would have wanted to trade places with six million Jews. Incidentally, is slavery the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything for blacks in Brazil (where everybody is poor), for blacks in the Caribbean (where everybody is black), or for blacks in Liberia (where everybody is poor and black)? What, then, makes slavery 42 for blacks in the US? What’s next? Muslim sense of civilisational impotency is because of Palestine, or Ataturk, or Lepanto?

roy chen yee | 03 September 2021  

Recent comments lament the uniformed level of theological discourse bandied about in Church renewal quarters and RE seminars. And it is true. Contributing factors await unmasking, but it is timely to note the malaise is shared and regularly displayed by liberal and conservative practitioners, even by those, who, ex professo, should know better. There was a well known senior churchman who liked to regale his international circuit after dinner audiences with reprises of his “Conscience and Cafeteria Catholics” routine. Until he stopped! He didn't stop speaking, but the Conscience/Cafeteria topic was withdrawn from circulation. At much the same time Roman dicastery corridor conversations chuckled about an off the record remonstrance; when a senior CDF member had a quiet word with the same Churchman – pointing out that his take on conscience failed to do justice with enshrined Catholic teachings, and, in fact, some of his predications could best be categorised as a variant of cafeteria catholic thinking at work.

Bill Burke | 28 August 2021  

Neo-Marxist critique applied to Christian Theology and its teaching, I liken to Afghan suicide bombing, John R D. This is the work of subintellectuals, who cannot think for themselves. I am so glad I was encouraged to think for myself at MGS, where I really came into my own. I must also thank those at Xavier, where I got my early secondary education, for laying a good foundation in the barren, obscurantist years that were the 60s. The late Fr Paddy Stephenson SJ encouraged us to read the Bible: unheard of in Catholic Melbourne then. This was followed up at Melbourne Grammar by the Reverend Fred Imray, who had an MA in Philosophy from Melbourne University and a real mentor to so many. The Reverend Dennis Woodbridge was a Catholic Anglican in the tradition of the late, great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, friend of both the then Pope and Hans Kung. None of them was heretical in any way. None was a sloppy thinker. I do not think you need to be a Scholastic Theologian. John Colet, my hero of the English Renaissance and who died a full, communicant Catholic, was not but he was orthodox. We need to stop the idiots throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They desperately need the Graces of Wisdom and Discrimination.

Edward Fido | 30 August 2021  
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I don't think the destructive influence of neo-Marxism on Christian theology can be underestimated, Edward. To my mind, it is the most potent academy-sponsored instrument in what you describe as the "desacralisation" of theology (25/8), whereby anthropology and eschatology admit only the 'horizontal' dimension of the human condition and its potential - a radical reduction and distortion of Christ's Gospel.

John RD | 31 August 2021  

“Neo-Marxist critique applied to Christian Theology and its teaching.... is the work of sub intellectuals, who cannot think for themselves....” (Edward F, Aug 30) These are strong words in need of justification lest the claimant slip into the sloppy theological thinking that he criticises. After all, a bevy of renowned Patristic thinkers reached into the Platonic corpus to illustrate their reflections on Christian belief and practices. Even the angelic doctor burrowed into Aristotle's work and came forth with an epistemology which would frame his Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica. So, surely working with ideas taken from non Christian sources has potential merit.

Back to recent times: it is worth recalling that the then Cardinal Ratzinger had two attempts at dismantling the credibility of the central tenets of South American liberation theology (1960's – early 80's). His first attempt was way laid by effective responses from leaders in the field that he felt it necessary to launch a second attempt. Though on the second occasion, he avoided engagement with arguments and stuck to a condemnatory treatise - relying on the authority of his office to censure what he designated as non acceptable. Perhaps Edward will comment further on what might lead one to classify Gustavo Gutierrez as an intellectual unable to think for himself.

Bill Burke | 31 August 2021  
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Both Platonic and Aristotelian thinking are exercises in metaphysics that affirm the existence of God. Because the Marxist paradigm is materialist, I don't see how an adoptive analogy for it by the Church can apply.

John RD | 01 September 2021  

To answer - yet again - your question, John, as I have done in the past, Christian tradition is replete with examples of saints, popes and scholars who warn against dualism and exclusively celestial depictions of virtue while abjectly condemning the goods of the Earth, all of them the product of God's Creation, as evils, at best to be tolerated if not condemned. The Gnostics and Manicheists strayed into this dangerous territory which, carried to its ultimate extreme of renunciation of all material things, advances a philosophy that preaches to the wretched of the earth that destitution is a virtue and the material means to keep body and soul together a vice. To stray too far into the territory of self-denial in pursuit of personal salvation without good deeds is grievously sinful. I neither see nor hear anyone in this forum advance extreme constructions of materialism as virtuous. Antithetically, justice hallmarks ES discourse! Marx lived, reflected and wrote at a stage of the Industrial Revolution when extreme work conditions were forced upon the peasantry after the seizure and usurpation of the commons and subsequent enslavement of vast numbers of landless labourers. Catholic Social Teaching specifically and unequivocally rejects this philosophy.

Michael Furtado | 04 September 2021  

Michael, I see no Manichaean danger in the contemporary world. The Gospel of Christ in its sacramentality affirms the organic relationship of matter and spirit, and enjoins justice in our relationship with God, one another and creation. However, it is not served by an ideology that conceives human existence and possibility exclusively within materialist parameters: the axiomatic Marxist negation of God shrinks and distorts the nature of humanity and the human condition, which includes the resurrection of Christ. The Christian faith, rejected by Marx, proclaims this event as the foundation of hope for all humanity and creation, and the motivation for respecting and fostering all life in this world - material and spiritual - in accord with God's creative purposes.

John RD | 06 September 2021  

I am unsure what theological error I have made in your eyes, Bill Burke. Sorry to say that, but in your attempt to sweep me away like an intellectual fly with that aside, you've actually said nothing and have not really added to your own credibility one iota. Yes, I know how Thomas Aquinas and the Schoolmen took Aristotle - not Plato - on board. I don't think you've read Karl Popper's work 'The Open Society and Its Enemies', where he effectively challenges Plato as a totalitarian. Popper wasn't a theologian, he was a philosopher. But you see, really great contemporary theologians do try to keep abreast of other areas of modern thought relevant to their field. I'm not quite sure what it is that's either new or relevant you're saying. It is possibly a load of blarney. Old stuff tarted up. A bit like the street corner Christian witness of the late Niall Brennan: mistargeted and off centre. Poor Niall, he thought he was a Christian apologist, a sort of Australian Chesterton. You seem to suffer the same hubris.

Edward Fido | 01 September 2021  

I began with a quotation from your own text. You categorise a class of thinkers who utilise elements of Neo Marxist critique as being being sub intellectuals who can not think for themselves. South American Liberation Theologians of the period I cited used elements of the Marxist Critique in formulating their theological method - hence my question to you on how you would categorise Gustavo Gutierrez - one of its best known exponents. Does he deserve the label of being a sub intellectual? I await an answer.

Bill Burke | 01 September 2021  

Alas, John (re. your post, September 6), to read Mark's Gospel account of the Resurrection in absentia of his account of the violent death and martyrdom to which Jesus eventually, reluctantly and valiantly submitted, is to skew it in dubiously propagandising directions that do not assist in clarifying our disagreements. As outlined in Gerald O'Collins SJ's remarkable Christological contribution in 'New Blackfriars' ('Jesus the Martyr', Vol. 56, No. 663, AUGUST 1975) to construct the Resurrection as any more than a culmination is to mislocate it within an overarching exegesis that draws contemporary theological attention by this remarkable scholar to the entire life-journey of Jesus, which, for historical purposes, cannot be dismembered and employed to suit selective quotation and extrinsic justification. As you might know, Gerald O’Collins SJ, is Professor Emeritus of the Gregorian University Rome, founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1551, and a pre-eminent Australian scripture scholar.

Michael Furtado | 08 September 2021  
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Michael, in confining the resurrection's scope to a "culmination" of Christ's earthly mission only, are you suggesting that it has no relevance to the body-soul relationship which you yourself raise in introducing Manicheism?

John RD | 13 September 2021  

John, in the last resort Jesus is said in the Gospels to have been resurrected. Forty days later he is recorded as ascending, Body & Soul, into Heaven. I can't see the dualism here but my position is that the Incarnation leading up to the Crucifixion trumps the Resurrection for neo-Marxists and others, such as myself, alert to the 'This World'-'That World' dichotomy of some 'transcendentalists' that presents Jesus as 'Other Worldly' (or not of This World). The post-Vatican II re-engagement of the Catholic Church with the Modern World has opened up dialogue with post-Marxists and others, as exegetised by O'Collins and several contemporary scripture scholars, that offer new missiological prospects for evangelisation with them that are thwarted by treating the Resurrection as a finalising historical tool, disenfranchised of the Justice narrative that leads up to it. The dichotomy I allude to is more than a hair-split when contextualised within a framework that depends on jaded and passe accounts of a 'communism that once was' in the misguided hope of stymieing growth in new directions. Might I suggest that, instead of your elderly 'Frankfurt School' rhetoric you acquaint your self with the new paradigmatic work of Thomas Kuhn and others.

Michael Furtado | 13 September 2021  

Did you know that Thomas Kuhn was a heavy smoker? I think it might have been the cigarettes wot done 'im in.

roy chen yee | 14 September 2021  

Michael Furtado: For purposes of immediate Australian Curriculum Revision relevance I'll confine myself to the 'Frankfurt School' aspect of your response (13/8). For four decades in university lectures and tutorials, professional development conferences, workshops and seminars I have encountered directly the influence of neo-Marxism on curriculum and syllabus revision, culminating recently in the requirement of "texts" being read through Critical Theory's race, gender, and class "lenses": a method that prejudices interpretation and restricts analysis. The details of this capture of curriculum and syllabus - and its deleterious educational effects - are extensively documented in the research and writings of experienced teachers and educationists such as Mark Lopez, Raymond Burns, and Kevin Donnelly, who demonstrate that the Frankfurt School's neo-Marxism is far more than the anachronistic curio you portray it to be. Rather, it is a potent contemporary instrument of the cultural revolution and utopia envisioned by the Frankfurt School's founders and developers.

John RD | 14 September 2021  

The Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ with whose work - particularly Christology - I'm acquainted is a systematic theologian who, while rejecting interpretations of Christ's resurrection as an exclusively spiritual or idealist phenomenon, holds instead "the robust New Testament proclamation that he (Jesus) rose bodily from the tomb into a new life of glory." ("America", 12/12/2015). In maintaining that the effects of Jesus's risen life are present in history, the purpose and goal of which will be realised fully by the risen Christ's transforming power - Fr O'Collins presents a critical point of difference from and corrective of the historical materialism of Marx and his contemporary cultural developers and their secular humanist conception of reality and history's telos.

John RD | 15 September 2021  

JohnRD (September 14 & 15), a brief glance at the internet reveals Mark Lopez to be a university tutor and the author of two self-published books which, I think it safe to say, place Lopez's criticism of modernist approaches to teaching as relating to criticisms of the Frankfurt School in the wildly extravagant basket. John's further citation of Kevin Donnelly in this regard provides yet another example of this act of seeming desperation, since both John and I have covered similar territory in our exchanges on Harold Bloom. Donnelly is but another polemicist, rather than a scholar, who seems to grab John's attention everytime he encounters deep water in his discussion of the magisterium. Although I have never heard of Raymond Burns, John's further attribution suggests that Burns occupies a similar place of grace in John's hierarchy of the greats. By more global standards, the Jesuits, who boast theologians like Gerald O'Collins, operate this journal and are reputed to host the best scholarship and institutions that grace the Catholic intellectual world, tend not to host John's panoply of cultural heroes in their quarters. It may disturb John to know that ACU now boast scholars, like Bob Lingard, who outclasses Donnelly.

Michael Furtado | 16 September 2021  

I think interested "Eureka Street" readers will find that references by me to Kevin Donnelly's writings have been few, and never advanced as a theological source on the topic of the Church's magisterium. This said, I imagine Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ and Dr Donnelly, whose research in education belies mere "polemicist" slighting, would be in substantial agreement on views expressed by Fr O'Collins such as : "Driven by pastoral needs of our world and church, too man up and coming theologians are reluctant to learn the languages, ancient and modern, and do the research required by this calling. More than ever, Catholic theology needs men and women ready to devote themselves to tough study." (Interview with Sean Salai, "America", 2/12/2015).

John RD | 18 September 2021  

What people actually think interests me more than their degree qualifications, Michael. Despite your dismissiveness, the teachers and educators I refer to lack neither direct experience in schools nor high academic achievement, and write with attention to evidence and a clarity I suggest their critics would do well to imitate.

John RD | 17 September 2021  

John, Donnelly apart, please know that my knowledge is eclectic. I derive my position from life's experiences. In this context there's no eschaton to rely upon other than praxis. Christology is theology based on the life and living experience of Christ. That's why O'Collins' work is unique in the Australian context because his focus is especially on Marcan exegesis and not on what happened after Jesus died! In Michael Gow's play 'Away', three couples meet by happenstance at a caravan park, where their bruises show; but somehow by the grace of God are healed by their interaction. This 'Barthian' treatment of the nature of God, as unleashed through their human interaction, is occluded by your transcendental theology, which disengages with the 'genuinely human' and tends to displace its significance in our liberation. Let's remember that Jesus was crucified by those who perceived His preaching as a dangerous attack on God as well as on Caesar. This was because He preached the good news of the Kingdom, which threatened the Jewish religious establishment and Roman secular authorities. Christian witness is a very dangerous thing. Crucifixion is the outcome! There is no alternative. That is our calling and we cannot escape it.

Michael Furtado | 20 September 2021  

Michael, my chief concern is with the neglect or obfuscating of the reality of grace and its Trinitarian source within a truncated materialist view of history and what it is to be human, and the concomitant reduction of Christ and his gospel to an instrumentalist and immanentist ideology. Increasingly in influential secular humanist circles the mere questioning of politically correct assumptions on key social, economic and moral issues affecting humanity - such as those identified from a perspective of scripture, Church tradition, faith, and lately, even reason itself - meets with ridicule, dismissiveness and ostracism in a way that does not occur when 'going with the flow' of what is rapidly becoming a media-driven all-pervading worldview, especially in the affluent West: a new Caesarism. I should add that I regard 'horizontal' (as opposed to 'transcendental') theology as a contradiction in terms, in that it disintegrates the Divine and human terms of the mystery of Christ's Incarnation, which the Christian faith affirms as the primary source of God's self-revelation and self-giving for the life of the world.

John RD | 21 September 2021  

True enough, John (re. your's of 21/9). But aren't BOTH, rather than just one or the other, important readings of the same Christ? Why must they exclude each other?

Michael Furtado | 23 September 2021  

"Why must they exclude each other?" That's a question more appropriately directed at those of Arian and Gnostic persuasions.

John RD | 25 September 2021  

I must confess being somewhat discomfited when you took my previous post as a crtique of Liberation Theology, Bill Burke, because it wasn't. The furore over Liberation Theology peaked a long time ago, although both the Pope Emeritus and the current Pope had important things to say about it which are relevant today. I was referring more to deconstructionist critique from the Social Sciences infiltrating Theology in the way of speaking about the Almighty, Sacred Tradition, sex and sexuality and similar. I am with the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who was for using terminology such as Light and Darkness, because it means something to people. This is not a bad thing. I think some theologians are too smart by half explaining away people's beliefs and leaving them worse off. This is why Soren Kierkegaard wrote 'The theologian is the Anti-Christ'. Non-inspired Theology can be very dangerous indeed. Whilst I am not a fan of Scholastic Theology, I am more in tune with Eastern Rite Catholicism here, I understand Aquinas to have been both inspired and orthodox. If you want to discuss Liberation Theology I am happy to do so, but that was not where I was coming from.

Edward Fido | 23 September 2021  
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Dear Edward, pardon my butting in. You say: ' I was referring more to deconstructionist critique from the Social Sciences infiltrating Theology in the way of speaking about the Almighty, Sacred Tradition, sex and sexuality and similar. I am with the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who was for using terminology such as Light and Darkness, because it means something to people. This is not a bad thing. I think some theologians are too smart by half explaining away people's beliefs and leaving them worse off. This is why Soren Kierkegaard wrote 'The theologian is the Anti-Christ'. Non-inspired Theology can be very dangerous indeed.' (23/9). To compare +Michael Ramsey with the deconstructionists is to contrast ivory with gold. Ramsey was a pastoral theologian, highly devotional and a great ecumenist in a day and age in which the Church of England was barely coming to terms with theologians such as the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, who wrote the highly popular modernist text, 'Honest to God'. Deconstruction, a method of textual analysis of the Gospels, as indeed of any other text, is the tool postmodernists and poststructuralists use to deconstruct culture. It has nothing to do with modernism's structural analysis.

Michael Furtado | 30 September 2021  

'For four decades in university lectures and tutorials, professional development conferences, workshops and seminars I have encountered directly the influence of neo-Marxism on curriculum and syllabus revision, culminating recently in the requirement of "texts" being read through Critical Theory's race, gender, and class "lenses": a method that prejudices interpretation and restricts analysis' (JohnRD 14/9). Since this conversation got sidetracked into defending those whom John regards as experts, there are a plethora of more global contributors to the field. One such is Canon Giles Fraser, an Anglo-Catholic scripture scholar and theologian of Wadham College, Oxford. Dr Fraser has written many books on the topic of Christianity & Violence, one of which compares the influence of Girard, Nietzsche, Anselm and Tutu on Christian thought. In it Fraser, a considerable scholar, attributes the influence of critical theory on religion to the ideas of Nietzsche, who, despite being a contemporary of Marx's, was not at all influenced by him. If anything, Marx would have read Nietzsche, who was far better known than Marx was in his day. As an educator, JohnRD should know that the critical view of society and culture reveals contested debates BETWEEN Horkheimer and Adorno and also BETWEEN Habermas and Foucault.

Michael Furtado | 30 September 2021  

No argument that debates within schools of thought exist, MF, but the characteristic dialectic of classical Marxist ideology is unmistakable in its contemporary Critical Theory applications of black v. white and female v. male and the reduction of literary analysis, and even grammar, to relations of power.

John RD | 30 September 2021  
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Well, John RD, you are categorically wrong! The dialectical method that the Frankfurt School employs has Hegelian roots. Marx simply borrowed Hegel's eschatology. Marxism, which you appear to read as a term of abuse rather than description, has nothing to say about gender and race, both of them and especially the latter, a major focus of the Frankfurt School. This obsession of your's, probably triggered by the fact that Adorno was the brains behind exposing the roots of the US anti-communist Macarthyist witchhunts, blinds you to the violence that you support in contributing to an otherworldly warmongering view of Jesus, who, Fraser shows, as did also Rene Girard, has had his teachings force-fed into the OT template of a violent sacrificial theology that Jesus Himself scathingly critiqued and categorically rejected. I've little doubt that your appeal to the magisterium, just like Roy's and when commonsense persuades otherwise, is a position predisposed to as well as consolidated by your archaic theology and politics. You need to read some of the work of Joel Hodge of the ACU who writes for this publication and is currently a Jesuit novice. You, Roy and some others here stymie the mobility of the Jesuit impulse.

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2021  

‘mobility of the Jesuit impulse’ The mobility that leads to the conclusion by the international head of the Jesuits that the Devil is not a person.

roy chen yee | 02 October 2021  

Someone should have told Marx that his idea of the dialectic was simply "borrowed" from "Hegel's eschatology." By the mid-1840s Marx had severed ties with the Young Hegelians and rejected Hegel's theistic idealism, countering it with his own historical materialism. Most historians locate in this period the origin of the well-known assertion that appeared in Marx's posthumously published "Theses on Feuerbach", (11): "The philosophers have only interpreted the world. . . the point, however, is to change it" - a project to which the advocates and activists of Critical Theory, in its various forms have committed themselves with the adaptation of Marxist conflict theory and its application to cultural superstructures ever since.

John RD | 03 October 2021  

The best way to show how Critical Theory offers a distinctive philosophical approach is to locate it historically in German Idealism. For Marx, Hegel was the last in the tradition of philosophical thought able to give us secure knowledge of humanity and history. The issue for Hegelians and Marx was then somehow to overcome Hegelian theoretical philosophy. Marx argues that it can do so only by making philosophy practical, in the sense of changing practices by which societies realize their ideals. Critical Theory developed a non-sceptical version of this conception, linking philosophy closely to the human and social sciences. In so doing, it can link empirical and interpretive social science to normative claims of truth, morality and justice, traditionally the purview of philosophy. While Critical Theory is often thought of narrowly as referring to the Frankfurt School that begins with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretches to Marcuse and Habermas, any philosophical approach with similar practical aims could be called a critical theory, including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism. You would be quite wrong, for instance, to classify all feminist theory as Marxist. The same with critical race theory. Ditto with post-colonial criticism which is post-Marxist.

Michael Furtado | 05 October 2021  

Michael Furtado: Following your recommendation (1/10), I searched through the available "Eureka Street" contributions of Joel Hodge, finding in one of them, "The Odd Heroism of Doing Nothing" (27/3/2020), a reference to the late Rene Girard, the most recent, it appears, of your self-described "eclectic" theological heroes. While Joel Hodge makes case for the relevance of Girard's concepts of acquisitive mimesis and appropriative mimicry, he does so within the context of Covid-19 restrictions and the sacrifices they entail for the common good. However, nowhere do I find him endorsing Girard's novel scapegoat theory that conceives sacrifice only in terms of violence, receiving your unqualified endorsement as an acceptably Catholic representation of the doctrine of salvation.

John RD | 05 October 2021  

Joel recently hosted a seminar by James Allison, who is an acknowledged expert in the field. Allison's book, 'The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes' is a work of theological anthropology that looks at original sin in light of the Resurrection. Alison is a Catholic theologian who is intimately familiar with Girard’s thought. He views mimesis as fundamental to what it means to be human and Joel is a co-researcher of his. Allison is the co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, which draws on the expertise of leading scholars and thinkers to explore the violent origins of culture, the meaning of ritual, and the conjunction of theology and anthropology, as well as secularization, science, and terrorism. Various authors, including theologians, biblical exegetes, spiritual writers, anthropologists, and others from the Catholic and Protestant traditions, assess the contributions of René Girard’s mimetic theory to our understanding of sacrifice, ancient tragedy, and postmodernity, and apply its insights to religious cinema and the global economy. The handbook serves as introduction and guide to a theory of religion and human behavior that has established itself as fertile terrain for scholarly research as well as spiritual and intellectual reflection.

Michael Furtado | 11 October 2021  

As a qualified teacher, JohnRD ought to know that Critical Theory has produced one of the greatest educationalists in Pierre Bourdieu's poststructuralist theory of practice, which provides a view of society and culture that regards human agency as more than just 'other-directed authority'. Bourdieu explains how postmodernity transcends modernity's tendency towards individualistic and atomised ideology. It unearths the historical and social genesis of so-called 'facts', extracting them from the fug of phenomenology and locating particular practices within a bigger picture and grand narrative as ongoing accomplishments that are never finished but have to be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed in ever-changing contexts. Habermas does this, as JohnRD well knows, by combining the research dimension of social science with the critically reflective dimension of philosophy. To this theologians add a theological dimension, which insists that the ultimate goal of a Christian's critical view of society and culture is to demonstrate that a theocentric and/or Christocentric moral telos (or purpose or objective) is needed to anchor the ongoing construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of moral meaning. Conversely, without a theocentric or Christocentric moral telos, society and culture can degenerate into anarchy, violence and the destruction of the common good (Calhoun, 'Habermas', MIT Press, 1993.)

Michael Furtado | 05 October 2021  

"Bourdieu explains how postmodernity transcends modernity's tendency towards individualistic and atomised ideology." In point of fact, quite the opposite would seem to be the case regarding this unifying claim for "postmodernity", one of the epistemic hallmarks of which is the nominalist repudiation - in favour of "non-fixity" and "fluidity" (e,g., Foucault, Derrida) - of language's ability to achieve and convey universal significance; a view corrosive of shared meanings indispensable to coherent community, religious or other, as it renders all moral and social norms merely relative.

John RD | 05 October 2021  

John RD, You distort my reference to Bourdieu and overlay it with an extraneous one to Foucault & Derrida, which sabotages my meaning. (For a wider treatment of this, see Garth Baker-Fletcher, 'Dirty Hands: Christian Ethics in a Morally Ambiguous World' Fortress Press, Minn. 2000, pp. 53-60). In it Baker-Fletcher proposes a typology of 'Christ transforming culture' as the telos of a Christian critical view of society, which you consistently reject and disparage as offering no insight to Christians from critical theory, especially in our engagement with contemporary issues of power abuse and control over others. This critical view of society and culture owes as much to the School of Critical Theory, which you disparage as sullied by its association with 'Marxist' dialectical materialism, and which owes its origin and development to Horkheimer & Adorno, while later becoming hotly contested between Habermas & Foucault. To this Baker-Fletcher adds a lengthy link to the poststructural theory of practice, espoused by Pierre Bourdieu, whom you ought to have encountered in your professional work as a teacher. My point is that your typecasting construction and rejection of Critical Theory is dramatically out of kilter with the pedagogical and theological work of contemporary scholarship.

Michael Furtado | 11 October 2021  

Michael Furtado, how curious your dismissal of Messrs Foucault and Derrida, two of postmodernism's leading practitioners, from your reference to Bourdieu's conception of "postmodernity" (11/10). Bourdieu's ideas of "field" and "habitus" and their role in cultural reproduction are extensions of Foucault's theory of hierarchical objectification and its agency in cultural domination, also identified by Foucault as "disciplinary power" (Discipline and Punish, New York: Pantheon, 1977, p.187) administered through society's mainstream institutions. Further, Bourdieu's dissociation from neo-Marxism is far from the conclusive matter you wish it to be, as shown in Julien Pallotta's "Bourdieu's engagement with Althusserian Marxism" ("Actuel Marx": Vol 58, Issue 2, 20015). Further, both Bourdieu and Derrida display a radical scepticism regarding the possibility of disinterestedness or gratuity in the reality of gift - a stance unpropitious, to say the least, for theological compatibility with the Christian understanding of God's self-giving in the incarnate Word-made-flesh. Finally for now, it appears at this point that at the root of or differences is the issue of the respective roles and statuses of philosophy and social science in relation to theology, and the latter's relationship with the Catholic Church's magisterium.

John RD | 13 October 2021  

JohnRD, I wish to sound a note of caution about drawing Joel Hodge into the polemical tussle about theology, pedagogy, justice & the Synod that hallmarks our correspondence. At so early a stage in his vocation such a thing may be counterproductive. While I know his father and was a close confidante of his priest-uncle, he is a relative newcomer in terms of our craggy attachment to positions that, whatever their value, can be unbudging. My response to Joel was occasioned by the publication of his recent article and your riposte stung me in terms of its construction as an attempt to chide Joel, which it wasn't. (Aren't all of us responsible for what we write?) However, my observation is that for a young, fresh and eloquent writer, as in so much else that happens in religion and politics, his work is the subject of claims and counter-claims that many make on him. This has happened to my certain knowledge in the case of some of his work on The Conversation' website, which even a hardy polemicist like me chose to leave rather than fight because of the extent to which epistemic claims on people like Joel were being made.

Michael Furtado | 12 October 2021  
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Michael, I appreciate your caution and solicitude for Joel Hodge as he pursues his novitiate in the religious life of the Society of Jesus. Prayers for him will, I believe, benefit him more at this stage than any expectation of his further engagement in matters currently in dispute, even though of their nature I understand them to involve more than polemics.

John RD | 13 October 2021  

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